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Don’t Worry About Snakes on the Trail

Worry About These 5 Critters Instead

People have plenty of different fears about the outdoors. But snakes are undoubtedly near the top of the list for most.

As it turns out, snakes aren’t really something you should worry about – there are several other animals that are much more likely to cause you a problem.

We’ll explain the ones that’ll get ya and outline the relative risk snakes (as well as a few other creatures that commonly frighten hikers and campers) actually present below.

Deaths Aren’t the Best Metric for Assessing Animal Danger

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At the outset, it’s important to recognize that many animals can cause outdoor enthusiasts significant harm without necessarily causing deaths.

Illness and injury are worth avoiding themselves.

Consider a broken ankle – one of the most common serious injuries hikers suffer. Broken ankles are rarely fatal, but that doesn’t mean fractures are fun. They hurt like hell and would force you to limp all the way back to your car while enduring said pain.

And we’ll keep this in mind below, as we compare the various threats presented by snakes and other animals.

Snakes: Assessing the Actual Risks They Present

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Volumes have been written on the complicated relationship between snakes and humans, so we won’t reinvent the wheel here. Suffice to say, the fear of snakes is disproportionate to the risk they pose to the average hiker.

Yes, it will be pretty bad if you’re bitten. It’s possible that you could even die.

But snake bite deaths are incredibly rare in the United States, and the chances of you even encountering a dangerous snake – never mind actually suffering a bite – are much lower than most suspect.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year.

This is a pretty illuminating stat, even if we’d quibble slightly with their language.

As we state in our article explaining how to determine if a snake is dangerous or not, we’re learning that more snakes possess venom than was previously thought. Most of these venoms are just not medically significant or the snakes have fangs that are too small to effectively deliver the venom.

So, we’d prefer if they said 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by dangerous snakes.

Nit picks aside, this seems like a solid number, and several other authorities cite similar figures.

Even if we consider the upper bound of this estimate, that’s just not a lot of serious bites relative to the number of hours people spend on the trail.

Some percentage of these bites are the result of freak accidents or deliberate attempts to interact with venomous species. And some people are undoubtedly bitten while working in the great outdoors (think landscapers).

Most of the remainder likely suffer bites when enjoying some form of outdoor recreation, such as fishing, hiking, camping, or birdwatching.

But let’s assume hikers and campers make up the entire group. In other words, we’ll say that 8,000 hikers and backpackers are bitten by a dangerously venomous snake each year.

So, how many people go hiking or camping each year?

More than you can imagine.

In 2021, 3.2 million people visited Yosemite National Park alone.

Another 1.8 million visited Rock Creek Park in the D.C., Saguaro National Park was good for another million and change, and just under 1 million visited Everglades National Park.

Those four parks saw a combined total of around 7 million visitors.

In total, there are 423 National Parks in the United States.

And we haven’t even talked about state, local, or private parks.

See where this is going?

The number of hours humans spend on trails in natural areas is unthinkable – we are out there in force.

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But hardly any of us are bitten by dangerous snakes while doing so.

There’s one more important piece of this puzzle to consider: mortality.

In the U.S., deaths from venomous snake bite are incredibly rare – we’re talking about five or so in a typical year.

With all due respect to those poor souls who’ve succumbed to a snake bite, five deaths in a country of more than 300 million people is a rounding error.

So, even if you are one of the 7,000 to 8,000 people who’re unlucky enough to step on a venomous snake each year, you’re incredibly unlikely to die from it.

Animals You Actually Should Be Concerned About on the Trail

So, if snakes don’t represent much of a statistical danger to backpackers and hikers, what should you worry about? What kinds of trail-lurking critters do deserve your attention?

Ticks

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Most people want to avoid ticks, but they rarely fear them the same way they do snakes. And this is unfortunate, as ticks represent a much greater statistical threat to your health than snakes do.

Now, ticks themselves aren’t really worrisome. They’ve evolved to have painless bites, lest you dislodge them before they can obtain the food (your blood) they require.

But these little arthropods carry and spread a variety of significant diseases.

Lyme disease is likely the one most people are familiar with.  Caused by bacteria in the genus Borrelia, Lyme disease can trigger a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from joint and muscle pain to facial palsy to myocardial complications.

Sounds like something hikers should avoid, no?

Well, unfortunately, few take it as seriously as they should. In fact, the CDC estimates that 476,000 Americans are diagnosed and treated for Lyme disease each year.

This obviously dwarfs the 7,000 or 8,000 people bitten by venomous snakes each year and puts the whole thing into perspective.

And remember: That’s only one disease, spread primarily by one species of tick. It isn’t even present in all parts of the country.

There are several other tick-borne illnesses backpackers and hikers would be wise to avoid.

Rickettsiosis – diseases caused any of several closely related bacteria, with Rocky Mountain spotted fever being the most familiar – has caused somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 6,000 illnesses in each of the last few years.

This group of diseases has become more common in recent years, but fortunately, they’re rarely fatal with competent medical care (primarily antibiotics). Around the time of WWII, roughly a quarter of the people who caught one of these diseases died.

There are a smattering of other tickborne diseases in the U.S., but most infect tens or hundreds of people each year – Lyme and Rickettsiosis are the big players.

The interesting thing is that so many people fail to take the minimal steps necessary to prevent these illnesses. Especially because it is so easy to do so.

Just use an EPA-approved bug repellent when spending time in natural areas.

When properly applied, some are very effective at preventing tick bites.

DEET-based products work best on your skin (and contrary to alarmist claims to the contrary, DEET is a safe and well-studied repellent), while permethrin is the substance of choice for applying to your clothing.

People would line up to purchase an effective snake repellent, yet they don’t use tick repellents – which are almost completely effective, affordable and easy to use.

It just doesn’t make sense.  

Mosquitos

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Characterized as the deadliest animals in the world by the CDC, mosquitos simply don’t garner the attention they deserve. 

Part of that is likely due to their ubiquity. Mosquitos are everywhere and they’re part of daily life for many. They feast on us at ball games, picnics, and even when simply retrieving the mail.

And we generally treat them as nothing more than a nuisance.

But mosquitos are capable of carrying a range of concerning to downright horrifying diseases.

This includes West Nile virus, Zika, yellow fever, dengue, lymphatic filariasis and the granddaddy of them all, malaria.

Now, these diseases aren’t all endemic to the United States. Malaria has been eradicated from the country for decades, and you aren’t going to catch yellow fever hiking the A.T.

But there are still plenty of concerning illnesses you can catch from mosquitos in the U.S.

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Zika got a lot of ink a few years ago, as it was new to the United States (it’s been known in Africa for decades).

Nearly 1,500 people contracted the disease in the first few years it was documented here, but it hasn’t been found in the U.S. since 2017. That’s obviously fantastic, but it could reappear at any time. That’s important, as Zika is not only capable of killing people, but it can also be spread sexually between humans or from mother to child.

Now, Zika isn’t always serious. Most people who contract it don’t even display symptoms. Only one in five people infected even develop a fever.

However, over the past 20-odd years, Zika’s mortality rate has ranged from 3% to 15%.

Crunching the numbers, that means that 264 people died from Zika in 2003, while 286 people died in 2012.

That’s far more than the single-digit death toll snakes cause in the U.S.

And despite the fact that mosquitos are most problematic in the warm-and-wet south, they care still a concern for those who hike and camp up north.

The Minnesota Department of Health, for example, lists six concerning mosquito-borne diseases that are transmitted within the state’s borders. Considering there are only two species of venomous snake even found in Minnesota, your odds of contracting a disease from a mosquito are likely far higher than the odds of you getting bitten by a dangerous snake.

Rodents

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Rodents can certainly bite ya, but that doesn’t happen terribly often. As with mosquitos and ticks, the real threat rodents present relates to their disease-spreading potential.

Rodents themselves spread a litany of terrifying diseases, ranging from hantavirus to tularemia to salmonella. When you take into consideration the diseases that they’re tangentially involved in the spread of, you get to throw in things like, oh I don’t know, plague.

In fact, plague is a good place to start.

Because it is often most commonly associated with the Black Death of 14th century Europe and Africa, many people incorrectly believe that plague is a thing of the past.

But outbreaks of this disease continue to occur in the modern world.

And though deaths are rare from it in the U.S., it can still theoretically kill you (it’s thought to have wiped out somewhere between 75 and 200 million people during the Black Death).  

And these outbreaks aren’t limited to exotic locations around the globe.

Unless you consider Arizona exotic.

Rodent-feeding fleas outside Flagstaff, Arizona were found to be infected with plague as recently as 2020

For that matter, the National Park Service characterizes plague as “widespread” throughout California. They have even published a dedicated “Plague in Yosemite” page on their domain.  

There are only about 10 cases of plague in humans each year, and most victims recover following a course of antibiotics. But we’re going to go out on a limb and guess that most people would still rather avoid it and the internal bleeding it can sometimes cause. 

Nevertheless, while plague is certainly frightening, it isn’t transmitted to humans all that regularly. There’s another worrying disease that’s been documented about three times as frequently as plague: hantavirus.

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There are a few different hantaviruses and they can cause different illnesses. But the ones in the New World cause something called Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS).

The initial symptoms of HPS aren’t that troubling. They primarily consist of muscle aches, fever, and fatigue. But as the disease progresses, some people begin suffering from digestive issues, headaches, and dizziness.

Eventually, some patients end up having breathing difficulties. And we don’t just mean wheezing, either. We’re talking about life-threatening breathing difficulties.

In fact, HPS has a mortality rate of 38%, according to the CDC.

But if you’re doing the math, neither plague nor HPS represent the same level of statistical threat to backpackers that venomous snakes do.

That’s certainly reassuring, but remember that the vast – and we mean the vast – majority of those bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S. do not die.

So, for an apples-to-apples comparison, we need to consider other rodent-borne diseases that are less serious than plague or HPS.

And that brings us to things like leptospirosis and salmonella. There are roughly 150 cases of the former documented each year, but the CDC estimates there are nearly 1.5 million cases of salmonella each year in the U.S.

Now neither of these diseases are solely spread by rodents.

You can get leptospirosis from a variety of warm-blooded animals, and you can even contract it from soil that’s been contaminated with infected urine.

And salmonella is famously spread via undercooked poultry and other foods. In fact, that’s undoubtedly the way most people contract it.

But rodents can and do spread both of these illnesses, as well as pathogenic E. coli.

Both leptospirosis and salmonella can be fatal, though they usually trigger milder symptoms.

Nevertheless, of all the things you may want to do on your next camping trip, we’re guessing that pooping yourself silly isn’t at the top of your list.

You may not die from salmonella, but you may wish you would.

There’s one more important thing to consider when thinking about the risks rodents present outdoor enthusiasts: Not all rodent-spread diseases are “reportable” (your doctor doesn’t need to notify the CDC that you’ve contracted them).  

Rat-bite fever – which can kill you — is a great example of this. Only about 200 cases of the disease have been documented in the U.S., but some researchers suspect that this is a “significant underrepresentation” of the true number.

Social Insects (Bees, Wasps & Their Kin)

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The stings inflicted by yellow and orange flying insects certainly suck, but they rarely haunt nightmares in the way snakes do.

But as with the other animals we’ve discussed above, bees and wasps represent a greater threat to your health and safety than you’d expect. And they certainly cause more problems than snakes do each year.

According to a 2018 study originally published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, roughly 60 people die each year from bee, wasp and hornet stings. Or, more accurately, the anaphylaxis (allergic reaction) that sometimes follows a sting.

That’s more than 10 times as many deaths as snakes cause, and it doesn’t even take into consideration the estimated 220,000(!) non-fatal stings that result in a trip to the emergency room.   

I know what you’re thinking: “I’m not allergic to bees, so I don’t have anything to worry about.”

Not so fast, tough guy.

Most people who’re allergic to bee stings don’t even know this is the case.

So, if you’ve only recently become interested in outdoor recreation and haven’t had the pleasure of feeling a sting before (and seeing how your body reacts), a bit of extra caution is certainly warranted.

For that matter, you can experience an anaphylactic reaction from a sting, even if you never have before – some people develop bee-sting allergies late in life.

Even stings that don’t require you to seek medical attention can be bad enough to ruin a trip, so it’s a bit puzzling that people don’t fear bees and wasps as much as they do snakes.

Off-Leash Dogs

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There are only two domestic animals you’re really likely to encounter on the trail: horses and dogs.

Horses are gigantic animals, and most non-equestrians give them a pretty wide berth. But dogs are familiar and widely beloved critters, who people tend to rush toward during encounters.

Now, before going further, let me explain that I love dogs. I have two, and I have worked as the editor for a popular dog-care website for many years.

So, I am very pro-dog, to put it mildly.

But that doesn’t mean dogs can’t cause harm, because they obviously can.

And many people should have more respect for dogs than they do.

Especially off-leash dogs, who’re unfortunately common on some trails and at some campgrounds.

Dogs certainly kill more people in the U.S. each year than snakes, but you may be surprised to know just how much more often this occurs.

Between the years 2000 and 2009, 256 different people were killed by a dog– 25 a year, give or take.

That’s five times as many as die from snakebite

And as we noted earlier, deaths aren’t the only metric by which danger should be assessed.

Even bites that don’t result in deaths can be horrific, not to mention much, much more common.

In total, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, with more than 800,000 requiring medical attention.

That is 100 times as many as those who are bitten by venomous snakes.

Children are at a much higher risk of serious injury or death from dog bite than adults are, but grown folks certainly aren’t immune.

Other Common Creature Fears

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Snakes certainly aren’t the only animals that strike fear into the hearts of nature lovers. But as with snakes, most of the animals people fear aren’t responsible for as many bad encounters or deaths as you’d think.

Some of the most notable include:

  • Bears: Approximately 40 people are killed by bears worldwide in a given calendar year, with only a small portion of those happening within the U.S. As an example, Yellowstone National Park – a popular spot among tourists and bears alike – has only recorded eight fatalities since 1872. Put another way, there is only one bear-related death for every 2.7 million visits to the park.
  • Alligators: Alligators are only native to a few states in the U.S., but they’re pretty numerous in Florida – approximately 1.25 million, according to wildlife biologists. Still, they just don’t cause many attacks. Currently, alligator attacks are growing in frequency, but they still only amount to about 10 each year.  And the majority of these don’t prove fatal – only about one each year does.
  • Spiders: Spider bites are almost impossible to track very well. Many go unnoticed and only a small handful of bitten people seek medical attention. But at the end of the day, they’re more-or-less equivalent to snakes insofar as they cause about 7 deaths per year.
  • Scorpions: For those exploring parks in the continental U.S., scorpion stings are barely worth discussing at all. While stings are undoubtedly common, they’ve only resulted in four deaths during an 11-year period. That’s about 1/3 of a death per year – scorpions just don’t kill people very often in the U.S. Things are different worldwide, as the number of deaths from scorpion sting skyrockets to 3,250 per year. So maybe be careful on your next overseas trip.
  • Sharks: Sharks may be the animal the “average person” fears most. But once again, our fears are disproportionate with the actual threat sharks pose (not to mention, it’s pretty easy to avoid the possibility of shark attack by simply keeping your feet on dry land). In 2022, there were only 57 confirmed unprovoked attacks worldwide, with only nine resulting in deaths. Given the incredible number of hours humans spend in the ocean, it’s obvious that sharks aren’t something you need to sit around worrying about.

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Mother Nature certainly does present some risks to hikers, campers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. But the most noteworthy dangers are rarely the ones that people tend to fear most.

And the statistics bear this out, as you can see above.

We hope this has helped you feel a little better about the relative risk that snakes present. We also hope it may have illustrated the need to take some parts of the natural world a bit more seriously.

But what is your takeaway from the facts and figures we shared? Did anything surprise you? Did you know that mosquitos were undoubtedly the most dangerous critter lurking in natural places around the world?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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